King Tum

King Edward the Seventh

by Sir Philip Magnus
Dutton, 528 pp., $8.50

It is democratic of the British that they like their monarchs to enjoy themselves. A tenser or more realistic race might get satisfaction out of watching the hereditary medicine man go trembling about his duties, red-nosed and sneezing at winter parades or itching with an allergy to ermine. Some kingdoms appreciate kings who give to understand that they would rather own a small cosmetics factory and run a Mercedes. But the British feel immensely superior to their sovereigns; the people is father of its king, and likes the lad to have fun playing with that expensive crown he got for his birthday.

They don’t always get that satisfaction. I take it to be obvious that kings and queens get a colossal kick out of being kings and queens; even that Swedish king who prowled about eating grass when he was required in the war room by his mistress, was rolling in kingship in his own way. The distinction is between monarchs who admit they enjoy it, and monarchs who don’t. Here Great Britain has been unlucky. George V gave nothing away. George VI’s enjoyment of the throne will, I think, come out in time—he once sat on the top hat of the Provost of Eton to see what that worthy would dare to say about it—but in his reign there was an impression of reluctance and devotion to hard duty. The present Queen has refused to play heartily with her toys in public view, which is why the public feels a little injured about her now.

The secret of Edward VII’s unpredictable and enduring popularity is that he was the last monarch who adored being king and let everybody see it. People still talk about him, who saw him only once and then were growled at. “He was a proper King. I mean, he let you know it. You felt he knew how to live.” Edward had the simple politeness to show gratitude by really “being a king” as George III never was. Beside that, his lack of intellect, his heavily reactionary politics, his extravagance, and his mistresses did not matter.

Sir Philip Magnus has found a good last sentence for his biography: “Safe havens were attainable from opposite directions; parents and tutors pointed one way but he found another; and he arrived.” Albert and Baron Stockmar, the king-trainer from Coburg, wanted to make the Prince of Wales into a model Coburgian constitutional monarch. He was subjected to merciless education for paragonship. His character was constantly being picked open and scrutinized for signs of moral growth. He had to keep a diary, inspected every day. Only when he was fifteen was he allowed to choose his own food. As a child, he gave way to violent, irrational rages and fits of cruelty to other children (a trait which lasted into his young manhood). Always telling the truth, as he always told it throughout his life, he still utterly failed to please. Stockmar thought that ancestral madness was coming out.


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.